The Grotesque

The Grotesque (1995)
★★ / ★★★★

Mr. Fledge (Sting) and his wife (Trudie Styler) are hired by Sir Hugo (Alan Bates) and Lady Harriet (Theresa Russell) as butler and housekeeper, respectively, despite not having references. Word has it that their former employer passed away in a bizarre accident: trampled to death by an ox. Cleo (Lena Headey), the only child of Sir Hugo and Lady Harriet, reckons that something is not quite right about Mr. Fledge. She has all the more reason to suspect when her husband-to-be goes missing suddenly.

“The Grotesque,” based on the novel and screenplay by Patrick McGrath, has its own stamp of humor. Sandwiched between the uppity British decorum is a bubbling hunger of sexual desires and the need to kill, made all the more enjoyable because the execution is not taken too seriously. However, some aspects of the source from which the material is based upon does not translate well to film. We are forced to detach from the experience when symbolism disrupts the narrative.

A lot of the humor stems from the patriarch’s intellectual curiosity. His obsession in piecing together bones of a so-called flegmasaurus that he believes to be an important bridge between reptiles and birds is handled with a lot of droll self-importance. The sight of his colleagues not attempting to mask that they are falling asleep during his lecture reminded me of early morning lectures in university. Equally funny is his hatred of the three thorns on his side: the cunning butler, the drunk housekeeper, and the wimpy poet, Sidney (Steven Mackintosh), who wishes to marry his daughter. Bates need not say anything for his character to be amusing because the actor puts all of Sir Hugo’s animosity in his eyes. Is he just a grumpy old man or is he more attuned to his reptilian brain?

What the picture lacks is a defined main character. It vacillates between Sir Hugo and Mr. Fledge. Although Sir Hugo has the most to say, Mr. Fledge is a mystery worth exploring. For a long time we are left to wonder what the latter’s true intentions are. If he, in fact, is the one responsible for the disappearance of the poet, what is his endgame? What does he hope to get from all the trouble? Once his intentions are revealed, they are, at best, somewhat underwhelming. For someone so intelligent, his ambitions are quite shallow. The drawn-out peeling of his mystique is not worth the wait.

The symbolism is heavy-handed. The sight of a dead cow in a pond is an obvious foreshadowing of horrors to come. From far away, multiple roars of thunder are heard during the rising action. In one of the scenes, a snake takes up about half of the screen as if the reptile were especially difficult to miss. Do you care to make a guess what the animal is supposed to symbolize?

Also known as “Gentlemen Don’t Eat Poets” and “Grave Indiscretion,” “The Grotesque,” directed by John-Paul Davidson, has about half of its ideas working for it despite some of the more obscure jokes that either fall completely flat or go undetected. Perhaps if the filmmakers had been more selective of which details are worth incorporating to the picture, its fangs would have had more bite.

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